When trumpeter Byron Stripling takes the stage at Powell Hall at 7:30 p.m. Friday, May 30 to lead the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra through “Gospel According to Swing,” he will be returning to a city and an orchestra that helped make him the musician he is today.
Stripling, who is artistic director of the Columbus Jazz Orchestra and a world-traveling soloist, got his start in the industry thanks to a St. Louis trumpeter, Clark Terry. Stripling was a student at the prestigious Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY, when Terry offered him a job playing trumpet on tour. Stripling dropped out of school and signed on for the 12-week tour across the United States and Europe.
Stripling’s eyes were opened to some of the great concert stages of the world – and his ears were alerted to the gospel.
“I still try to make the connection to the gospel Clark has in his playing,” Stripling said – and then proceeded to sing what he had in mind. “He played the notes in between the cracks. That’s the gospel thing. The wavering between the notes – that’s all church stuff.”
Stripling grew up (in various states) listening to jazz over the shoulder of his father, Luther Stripling, a classical singer. “When my father came home, he relaxed – and then he was all about the jazz,” Stripling said. Clark Terry was one of his father’s favorites, as was another trumpet player from the other side of the Mississippi River.
“My father was a voracious consumer of jazz – especially Miles Davis,” Stripling said.
The son would grow up to meet and even be treated to a sort of private concert by the great composer and trumpeter from East St. Louis.
After breaking in with Clark Terry, Stripling played in bands led by Dizzy Gillespie, Woody Herman, Dave Brubeck, Lionel Hampton, Louis Bellson and the Count Basie Orchestra. Flying to Europe on tour with the Basie band in the 1980s, another musician told him Miles Davis was on the same flight. Stripling was taken up to first class to meet the legend.
“He punched me on the shoulder!” Stripling said, as if he could still feel a smart from his knuckles. After some small talk during the flight, Miles invited him to come see his concert that night.
When Miles told the promoter who met him at baggage claim he had some new guests for that night’s show, the promoter said the show was sold out.
“Then seat them onstage with me,” Miles said, according to Stripling. “If you have any problem with that, there will be no concert tonight.”
There was a concert that night, and Stripling experienced it from the stage.
“What an amazing thing it was to sit on stage and watch Miles play, a breath away from his trumpet sound,” Stripling said. “It breathed life into what I was doing as a trumpet player.”
The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra itself breathed life into Stripling’s trumpet playing even earlier in his musical development.
His family lived in St. Louis (Stripling rattled off the address on Vorhof Drive from memory) in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when his father was teaching at SIUE and the son was away at college. On one visit home, Stripling went to Powell Hall to see the symphony perform “Also Sprach Zarathustra” by Richard Strauss.
“It’s a tone poem with a big trumpet solo,” Stripling said. “At the time, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra had one of the world’s greatest trumpet players in Susan Slaughter. I had never seen a woman play classical trumpet. I was blown away – seeing a female trumpet player hit all these high trumpet fanfares.”
The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra , he said, has “remained embedded” in his mind ever since. He has performed with the orchestra on several occasions. At first, he felt intimidated, but the “vibe” of the people got him over that.
“St. Louis is a little Southern, a little Midwestern,” he said. “They tend to be good, genuine, friendly people. Put that together with amazing musicianship, with an orchestra that is second to none, and what an experience!”
The quality of musicianship, he said, makes it easy to play gospel and to swing with this orchestra.
“I involve the orchestra actively in playing the jazz-slash-gospel parts,” Stripling said. “The orchestra has to focus in a different way. They’re not just playing whole notes from a score.”
He provided a vivid example, which suggests what the audience might expect on May 30.
“When we play ‘Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,’ an old Negro spiritual, we begin it like an Afro-Cuban thing,” he said.
“The percussion guy in the orchestra is used to playing bells and little things like that. I have him playing a conga and cowbell and tympani. A lot of times when you play classical music, you try to play delicate. I want you to curl your toes, hike up your behind and hit the drums!”
Tickets may be purchased by phone at 314-534-1700, online at www.stlsymphony.org or in person at the Powell Hall Box Office, 718 North Grand Blvd.